How to Start Planning a Program

“I have an event coming up in a few weeks, and I need education… but I don’t know where to start.”

“My students said they want to talk about free will, but how do I turn that into a program?”

“I have a great idea for a program, but I don’t know how to drill it down and make it relevant. What should I do?”

In this post, we will learn:

  1. Why every good program starts with an “essential question
  2. The 4 “Why”s
  3. Further reading

Essential Questions vs. Factual Questions

Compare the following sets of questions:

  • What role does free will play in our lives?
    Compared to: What is the definition of “free will”?
  • What is a true friend?
    Compared to: What are the different scholarly interpretations of “Love thy neighbor as yourself”?
  • What is the significance of the Holocaust?
    Compared to: How many concentration camps were there, and what was their system of organization?

What’s the difference between the first and second question in each pair?

  • All of the first questions are open-ended, spark conversation, and relate to broader questions of identity and meaning. All of the second questions are closed, fact-based, and don’t require deep thought.
  • The first questions are identity-based, while the second questions are information-based.
  • The second questions get the students to just answer the question, while the first questions force the students to confront the questions and supply their own answers.

When planning a session, the first question you should ask yourself is: What is my essential question? Within the topic I selected, what is a question that is relevant to my students’ identities, core to understanding the topic, will start conversations, and connect the topic with their own experiences and ideas?

PRO TIP: A helpful frame for creating an essential question is: How will it impact my students’ lives to discuss this question? Does this question have multiple perspectives? If the answer to the above questions are no, then you do not have an essential question.

The 4 “Why”s

How do I discover the essential question of my topic? A strategy for getting to the core of a topic is to try to ask “why” at least four times. For example:

  1. Why do I want to talk about free will? Because it is an important theological topic.
  2. Why is it an important theological topic? Because people need to know that they have control over their own actions and are responsible for the consequences of their decisions.
  3. Why should the teens care? Because as they transition into adulthood, they need to recognize that they have power, and responsibility that comes along with that.
  4. What question is on their minds? Maybe they are wondering: How do I take responsibility for my own actions? What role does choice play in my life? Am I responsible for my actions if God knows everything? Am I responsible for my actions if I live at home, and don’t have control over my decisions?

Using the process of the “4 whys” will help you create an essential question that will become the spine of your program.

PRO TIP: Make sure to approach the 4 “Why”s and essential questions from the perspective of the student – not of the teacher. What might be fascinating to you, might seem totally irrelevant to the student.

Further Reading

If you have any questions – essential or otherwise – feel free to contact me at

Marc Fein